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Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

Charmed LifeThis is the first novel in the Chrestomanci series, which is also known as the Worlds of Chrestomanci (a reference to the fact that it's about parallel worlds). During the Harry Potter craze the Chrestomanci books were touted as a predecessor, and it's true that Charmed Life is about a sort of boarding school for magicians. Charmed Life is the story of two orphans, Gwendolyn and Cat Chance, who go to live with a mysterious and powerful figure named Chrestomanci, who lives in a posh country estate with his extended family.

Like a lot of DWJ books it starts off somewhat banal, despite its strange setting full of witches and warlocks and magicians, but by the end it has become something truly weird and wonderful. I believe this novel is aimed at a somewhat younger audience than her young adult books, and by the middle of it I was beginning to feel that I wasn't the right reader for it. In particular it starts piling on crises for young Cat that are largely the result of his being too young to understand what's going on and therefore afraid to ask for help. I was beginning to find this tiresome when the story really kicked into gear and took off. I found the final act very satisfying indeed.

Like a lot of DWJ books, a lot of the power of the final act comes from explaining apparently banal things we encountered earlier in ways that create a shock of reconfiguration. Things that seemed like silly gags (a violin turned into a cat because it was played like a screeching cat) suddenly become potent plot points. I've said any number of times in my other reviews of DWJ's books that her central strength is characterization, but coming in only slightly behind that is her ability to plant seeds throughout the tale that burst into teeming life at the end. It feels nothing short of miraculous every time.

I'm often not sure how in control she is of her stories. They always feel as though they are twisting and turning beneath her hands like live things with minds of their own, and the endings often feel rushed. This one reveals some truths in the last few pages that seemingly cannot be resolved in the short time she gives them, and young Cat is left in a state of emotional whiplash that Jones doesn't even try to resolve. The novel ends on an explicit note of wild, clashing feelings, like a ragged sigh or laughing sob. Truly raw and remarkable.

Despite the fact that it's aimed at a younger audience, it's full of jagged edges too. Cat's sister, Gwendolyn, is an utterly loathsome creature, although Cat (and even Chrestomanci) is sympathetic to her throughout. Even some of the less overtly loathsome characters, such as the servants Mary and Euphemia, are given a nasty edge. Perhaps most remarkable on the jagged (or maybe ragged) front is the death by drowning of Cat and Gwendolyn's parents, which happens in the very first chapter but which isn't remarked upon directly until much later in the book. The lack of sentiment in the children regarding their parents' death leaves a very odd and possibly unpleasant aftertaste, but then again family is often a fraught subject in DWJ's books, as in life.

The Chrestomanci series is apparently not a sequence but rather a series of stand-alones. The Lives of Christopher Chant is the other one I've seen highly touted, and I'm wondering if I should read that next even though it's the fourth Chrestomanci book published. Or should I read The Magicians of Caprona next? Anybody have thoughts on this question? (Ah, Wikipedia reports that DWJ herself recommended reading The Lives of Christopher Chant next.)


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 27th, 2013 02:30 am (UTC)
"Lives of Christopher Chant" for sure. Andy actually read that to me 1st because he felt "Charmed Life" wasn't as strong an introduction to the world. I don't much care for "Magicians of Caprona".
Jul. 27th, 2013 05:22 am (UTC)
Okay, I'm now committed to this course of action.
Aug. 5th, 2013 05:42 am (UTC)
I didn't like THE LIVES OF CHRISTOPHER CHANT, far too full of pompous people giving Christopher orders 'for his own good', but if you must read it then I suggest you make CONRAD'S FATE the very next Jones book in your reading list. In a way CONRAD'S FATE is a sequel to THE LIVES OF CHRISTOPHER CHANT and for my money is one of the most entertaining novels DWJ ever wrote. It's rather less complicated than most of her stories which I think is a good thing. DWJ reminds me of the sort of cook who can't ever resist adding extra ingredients to a dish regardless of whether it adds or subtracts from the overall effect. All too often there are elements to her stories that make them more convoluted and longer but not necessarily better. In CONRAD'S FATE however she stuck with the elements she set up in the first few chapters and if the book is rather long it's only because Conrad finds himself living in a large and complicated household. If there was ever a DWJ novel that begged to be made into a live-action serial it's this one.
Aug. 5th, 2013 02:59 pm (UTC)
I guess she does tend to over-egg the pudding, but I think I like that about her. Hooray for convolutions! Anyway, I'll keep Conrad's Fate in mind, although I was thinking I might read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland after Christopher Chant.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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